Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students is a favorite book of mine. The 19th Century Baptist preacher says things in such a way that he seems to bring home the point in a fresh way each time.
I’ve recently been thinking about not just what we say when we preach but how we say it. In this excerpt from Lectures to My Students Spurgeon hits on two often neglected tools in the preacher’s homiletical tool belt: variation and surprise.
Preachers often fall into the trap of saying the same thing over and over again. We repeat our canned phrases when appropriate. There is nothing wrong with what we are saying but it is just not as helpful as it can be. It would seem that the craft of preaching should demand some degree of thoughtfulness.
There is a great deal of force in that for winning attention. Do not say what everybody expected you would say. Keep your sentences out of ruts. If you have already said, “Salvation is all of grace” do not always add, “and not by human merit.,” but vary it and say, “Salvation is all of grace; self- righteousness has not a corner to hide its head in.”
I fear I cannot recall one of Mr. Taylor’s sentences so as to do it justice, but it was something like this: “Some of you make no advance in the divine life, because you go forward a little way and then you float back again: just like a vessel on a tidal river which goes down with the stream just far enough to be carried back again on the return tide. So you make good progress for a while, and then all of a sudden” — what did he say? — “you hitch up in some muddy creek.” Did he not also repeat us a speech to this effect, — “He felt sure that if they were converted they would walk uprightly and keep their bullocks out of their neighbor’s corn”? Occasional resorts to this system of surprise will keep an audience in a state of proper expectancy.
Next Spurgeon speaks of surprise. Sometimes preachers can preach with the predictable cadence of a familiar soundtrack. The application, appeals to the unconverted, connections to Christ, and conclusions all come at the same time. Spurgeon, recounting a humorous story, reminds preachers to surprise their hearers.
I sat last year about this time on the beach at Mentone by the Mediterranean Sea. The waves were very gently rising and falling, for there is little or no tide, and the wind was still. The waves crept up languidly one after another, and I took little heed of them, though they were just at my feet. Suddenly, as if seized with a new passion, the sea sent up one far-reaching billow, which drenched me thoroughly. Quiet as I had been before, you can readily conceive how quickly I was on my, feet, and how speedily my day- dreaming ended. I observed to a ministering brother at my side, “This shows us how to preach, to wake people up we must astonish them with something they were not looking for.” Brethren, take them at unawares. Let your thunderbolt drop out of a clear sky. When all is calm and bright let the tempest rush up, and by contrast make its terrors all the greater.
Remember, however, that nothing will avail if you go to sleep yourself while you are preaching. Is that possible? Oh, possible! It is done every Sunday. Many ministers are more than half-asleep all through the sermon; indeed, they never were awake at any time, and probably never will be unless a cannon should be fired off near their ear: tame phrases, hackneyed expressions, and dreary monotones make the staple of their discourses, and they wonder that the people are so drowsy: I confess I do not.
When I read and consider these words I admit that I have something of a backstop that pushes back upon me. I don’t want to be pragmatic, calculating or manipulative. If I am giving so much thought to timing, tone, and choice of words, am I walking down the road of becoming what Paul warned against in 1 Cor. 1 & 2? I don’t think so. As I reason and think through this it is not pragmatic to try to be as helpful, clear, engaging, and vivid as we can be. Snapping people out of their drowsiness, whether induced by themselves or the sermon, is a service to them. As long as we remember that the power is in the Word of God and do not depend ultimately upon ourselves, the thoughtful measured use of variation can be a great tool in the preacher’s hand. In this, a service to their congregation. So brothers, “let your thunderbolt drop out of the sky!”